Friday, February 6, 2009

Walter Benjamin's Archive

"I remember these two," he said. "That gives me some place to start," Old Betonie said, lighting up the little brown cigarette he rolled. "All these things have stories alive in them." He pointed at the telephone books. "I brought back the books with all the names in them. Keeping track of things." He stroked his mustache as if he were remembering things. -from Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Since reading this passage, I haven't been able to look at a phone book the same way. To Old Betoine, a phone book is an archive and one with a rich history that deserves to be kept safe. For me, a phone book was always just a phone book. In our culture of waste it is easy to, perhaps necessary, to overlook "the stories" that are alive in objects. Otherwise we would live like the Collier brothers and other obsessive hoarders in overwhelming clutter (or wind up as characters in a Paul Auster novel).

The great literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin had also set about collecting and creating small archives that represented experiences and ideas drawn out of the scraps of modern life in order to provide a portrait of his own existence. The new book from Verso, Walter Benjamin's Archive is a fascinating, if difficult, look into these small collections.

Influenced by Baudelaire's notions of the ragpicker, the chiffonnier, an object plucked from the roadside would, with others, assume the shape of something useful. The fine threads that link disparate objects start to create a new form but one that remains open ended and without conclusion. The tasks of a modern researcher "at home in marginal areas" and fascinated with the incidental, could gain a new perspective on history. It is this seeming randomness and open ended categorization that make his archives challenging to occupy that same "marginal" space and mode of thinking.

Walter Benjamin's Archive presents material from 13 different areas of study from miniature Russian toys (Physiognomy of the Thingworld) to documents that make up his famous Arcades Project (Rag-Picking). Each chapter presents introductory essays that do their best to give an idea of the basic concepts and Benjamin's thinking. Even though well written I find myself struggling to keep my mind from folding in on itself trying to fully comprehend his ideas and explorations.

The most accessible for me was his documentation of his son Stefan's development of language. Stefan's expressions for Benjamin were proof of "the child's world picture, thought, and knowledge." Twists or distortions of words and phrases for Benjamin had no business being corrected but when left to examine the play of relationships, created an "archive of nonsensuous similarities, of nonsensuous correspondences."

I was surprised to see that this fine book was published by the radical lefty house Verso since most of their backlist deals more with political analysis. The design is well executed with lots of illustrations of the original archive papers and postcards etc. Dense at over 300 pages, it has enough challenging thoughts and ideas to make your frontal lobe give your medulla oblongata a wedgie. Highly recommended for the mental exercise.